How You Heard the News That
He Had Taken His Life
2006 by Marcia Aldrich
t was late
afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving, and you were playing loud music—Born
to Run—as you often do when you are in a flurry of cooking
and cleaning for company. You find Springsteen naturally loud, but Richard
had cranked up the volume. The speakers were good and the windows vibrated
with the bass guitar.
Friends were driving up from Columbus the next day to spend Thanksgiving
with you. You had just come home from the market, and Richard was putting
groceries away. You had begun to clean when the phone rang. You barely
heard it in the bedroom, vacuuming the new carpet installed during Joel’s
visit in early October. Richard answered and disappeared into the basement
to talk, away from the blaring music, for he hadn’t turned the music
down before picking up the phone.
You continued vacuuming. You were in a cleaning reverie, thinking about
dust, how it accumulates without your noticing. You came out of the bedroom
into the living room and you saw Richard. You began to tell him about
the shower, which you had remembered needed cleaning. The guitars and
singing were very loud and he tried to say something—you remember
his mouth moving—but you couldn’t hear him. He looked distraught,
colorless, standing under the arched doorway to the living room and at
the time you thought he was annoyed by the music, even though he had selected
it and turned up the volume. He signaled that he was going to turn off
the music, and you walked back into the bedroom, unaware that anything
else was amiss.
When Richard returned, he said, “He did it.” At first, you
didn’t catch on. "Who did what?" you asked. Your absorption
in preparing for guests was complete and blocked out the undercurrents
you had been feeling about Joel. You had forgotten about the package you
received on Friday from Joel, with the odd assortment of items: commemorative
spoons from the Chicago’s World Fair of 1933, a lapel button promoting
literacy, and a thousand dollars wadded inside an egg coddler. The letter
enclosed with these gifts was addressed only to you. It began “Dear
Marcia” and ended “Love, Joel.” In between was an inventory
of the contents. In all the years of friendship, Joel had never written
a letter to just you or sent you a package. Sending the package with its
disturbing contents wasn’t the only mysterious act Joel had performed
In late August he had called to say he was coming to visit. The call in
August had differed from earlier vague plans in that Joel stated firmly
that he was coming, but didn’t know exactly when. At the time you
thought it a strange way to proceed. Generally speaking, when someone
has a definite plan to travel, part of it includes a specific schedule.
During the same phone call, he announced that he was undertaking a major
housecleaning, divesting himself of books and items he had kept since
childhood, for who knows what purpose, binoculars, microscope, and what-not.
He was getting rid of his computer and would rediscover the pleasures
of handwriting. He had sent a list of his books and asked you to check
off those you wanted him to bring along. He had spoken energetically about
the purification ritual, the good effect of ridding himself of accumulated
sundries. Your children were as close to family as he was going to get,
and he wanted them to have his possessions—that was how he put it.
You felt uneasy; something unspoken lay under these calm explanations,
but you did not know what. No plan to change his life in other ways accompanied
his renunciation of these goods. You questioned Richard about what Joel
was up to and what it might mean. Richard said he saw nothing ominous
in Joel’s behavior. But he too was uneasy. You pushed down your
fears and resumed your engaged-elsewhere consciousness.
did make his visit, in the first week of October. By the time he pulled
into your driveway, the leaves were beginning to trickle down. After a
quick embrace, he turned to his small station wagon, keen to move the
items he had brought, as if the load were contraband that had to be quickly
hidden inside the house. The rear of the car was filled with the computer
and its peripherals, microscope, binoculars, television, and the agreed-upon
books. All of the gifts were old, out of date, and nothing you especially
wanted. You had accepted them because it seemed important to Joel that
you do so. You hadn’t known how to refuse.
Driving across the country with a car full of belongings he wanted you
to have wasn’t the end of his gift-giving. He wasn’t done
giving you his things. After Joel returned to San Francisco, he sent two
boxes of stamps, meant, you supposed, as a collection for your children.
The boxes sat in your living room, just inside the door of the vestibule,
for several days. Eventually Richard hauled them up to the attic, where
the rest of what Joel had given you was stored.
But when you found the thousand dollars in the egg coddler, you blurted
out, “He’s not going to kill himself, is he?” Richard’s
response had been, “He wouldn’t do that to me.” Nevertheless
he called Joel immediately, got his answering machine, and left a message.
That was Friday, November 17. On Saturday Richard called again. The phone
rang. There was no answer. There was no answering machine.
was as if Joel had sent you a suicide intent scale all filled out and
you couldn’t read it. Wouldn’t read it. Richard still believed
that the letter addressed oddly to you meant something other than Joel’s
suicide. He was in some sense deranged, his acts and their intention oblique.
You did not understand the truth then. And you went back to your life.
You just didn’t understand, then, that Joel was planning to die,
and you didn’t understand when Richard tried to tell you on the
afternoon of cleaning before Thanksgiving. Richard had to spell it out
for you: “He killed himself. That was Joel's father on the phone.”
When you finally comprehended, when the truth finally penetrated your
self-absorption, the news jolted you. This is how the news of death hits.
It catches people when they are merrily engaged in some trivial but consuming
daily task, baking or mowing the lawn or folding socks. You were vacuuming.
No matter how long someone has been ill, no matter the signs of approaching
death, or the intuitions of something awry, when the deed is done, the
fact of it cannot be assimilated, taken in. You felt disbelief; you refused
to believe that Joel was dead, that he had killed himself. Then you saw
your normally composed husband overtaken by shock, grief, and recrimination.
You held each other as couples do, the embrace we see all the time on
news clips, the couple standing at the scene of tragedy. You stood outside
yourself to see you holding your husband. You’d be holding him still
if your son hadn’t come in and asked what was wrong. You couldn’t
begin to answer; there were so many things wrong.
David, the youngest, just a boy of seven, was the one among you who accepted
the news and tried to help you. He had stood by the bed where you collapsed,
stroking your back. Your daughter was at basketball practice, would have
to be picked up and told. You would have to figure out what to do about
Thanksgiving. Even if your friends came and you cooked dinner as planned,
things would not be as they were.
The conversation with Joel’s father had been brief. He had not had
your phone number, and it had taken some days to locate it. He would have
called sooner, he said. He had gotten your number from Richard’s
parents. Joel's father did not tell him; Richard learned this when he
tried to tell his mother about Joel’s death and discovered that
she already knew. Joel’s body had been found Monday, and it was
Wednesday, November 22, late afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving. Joel
was dead; he had committed suicide. He had emptied his apartment completely,
except for the telephone and the gun. He had rid himself of all his earthly
belongings. Only then did Richard realize that Joel must have heard the
message he left on his answering machine that Friday. That Joel was still
alive when he called. Then he disposed of the answering machine and proceeded
with his plan. That’s why the phone rang but no machine picked up
for Richard’s subsequent calls.
In talking to Joel’s father, Richard concealed all the things Joel
had given you because it was so obvious now what they meant. Joel had
sent the police a typed letter, a key, a California driver’s license
and a Department of Motor Vehicle change-of-address card. The letter,
dated November 17, stated, “On or before Friday, November 17, I
will have taken my own life using my .38 revolver.” Upon receiving
the letter on Monday, the twentieth of November, the police went to his
apartment and discovered the body that had been lying on the bathroom
floor for three days.
It was an extremely cold night, the night of the afternoon you heard about
Joel, the night before Thanksgiving. The temperature had suddenly plummeted.
The snow looked enameled, a shade of blue under the full moon. Your daughter
had to be picked up at basketball practice. You parked in front of the
school and waited until the girls came out. All the parents sat in their
parked cars, the motors running to keep warm. Exhaust poured out of the
tailpipes, great blue flumes puffing in the dark. Girls began to emerge
from the building, but no Clare. You waited. She was dallying, talking
to friends, making plans, while you were sitting in a car in the cold,
Sitting in front of the small school in your Midwestern town, you thought
about what you saw and what you didn’t see. What you saw was people
going about their lives like clockwork. Lives functioning, functioning
lives. Clockwork. No skipped beats. No one suspended in time. No one poised
in the in between. You did not see the man with the dead career staring
blankly ahead. You did not see women unable to get out of bed or return
home at the end of the day. Everyone was busy getting ready for Thanksgiving.
Everyone was productive. No one was looking for a job and couldn’t
find one. No one had been laid off or was too old to be hired. No one
had taken a wrong turn from which there was no recovery. Despair, loneliness,
and pain happened offstage, in the wings, behind heavy curtains. No one
stood outside his house, unable to enter. If someone drove aimlessly about,
not wanting to go home, you did not know about it. If divorce was discussed
or financial disaster loomed, if jobs were dreaded, and children were
crying themselves to sleep, you didn’t know about it. If suicide
was being contemplated or planned or executed, clearly you didn’t
know about it. You wouldn’t allow yourself to know, really know
about it. Having come to this conclusion, a conclusion you would come
to again and again thinking back to the day you heard, you couldn't bear
the waiting any longer and sent David to get your daughter. They bounced
down the school steps, side by side like shiny balls. You didn’t
want to tell her. She wouldn’t want to know about his death, wouldn’t
want his suicide to touch her. Not now when she was looking forward to
your friends' visit and wouldn’t want to cancel it. Not ever. You
knew you had to tell her before she saw her father. Her father lying at
home in a darkened room with his head turned toward the wall. When she
got in the car, she knew something was wrong. And you told her. Then you
turned the car for home.
on a Bridge
2006 by Marcia Aldrich
he starts at the bottom of the hill, at the far border where Route 29,
a four-lane highway, washes by with fast cars. She passes over a cattle
crossing on the narrow road that cuts up through meadows of uncut grass,
knee-high, a pale wheat color ending in burgundy tips the color of stewed
plums, like a prairie transplanted to Virginia, along the wire fence that
divides the cow pasture from the meadow and runs parallel to the train
tracks. Osage orange trees dot this fence line, and as the woman walks,
oranges fall, not singly but simultaneously, with solid thumps, and then
roll until they come to rest. A few lie broken open by squirrels, and
the woman is surprised how thickly ruffled are the outer layers of the
oranges, how soft and spongy the insides. On she walks up the hill, the
muscles in the back of her legs tightening, her back aching to meet the
rise. In the next field, a tractor mows. Something exhilarates her—to
be out in broad daylight, in the open, at noon, yet unseen, as if by someone
who no longer loves her. She feels that the earth beneath her feet is
preparing for a change.
Two hawks hang in the blue above her. They seem to need no effort, their
wings extended and still, tilting first to the right, and then to the
left, as the wind currents twist them about. Then, after long minutes,
they flap their wings, circle, and hang again. The effortlessness, however,
is sham appearance. It takes considerable energy pulled from the air to
keep the hawks aloft, presiding in crisp suspension over the field below.
They patiently wait to see what the tractor disturbs with its mowing,
to see what prey may be turned out of its shelter that they might strike
and kill. The hawks and the woman keep at their vigilance, keep themselves
up in a posture of readiness, necks slightly bent, eyes focused down and
out, backs taut, hearts pumping as fast as the train rushing under the
That night she walks down the tree-shrouded road towards a patch of light,
as if curtains were parting. In the dark no one is on the road. The sky
is full of stars she has been missing. She walks to the middle of the
bridge that crosses above the tracks, stops dead center over them, and
faces eastward, from whence the Crescent will arrive just before eleven.
She sees its light—a burning white powdery kind of light—before
she sees the body of the train, before she hears it. It is fast then,
coming towards her, parting the fields in two, both sides dark. A humid
gust on her face, and she raises her arm and holds it outstretched, unsure
if anyone is conducting who can see her in the dark above, in the middle
of the bridge. When the Crescent rushes under, the whistle blows, and
before she can count to three, it has passed under and long gone, a bullet